Travel Tuesdays - Frankincense and Myrrh

Welcome to “Travel Tuesdays,” a resource for those whose plans have been deferred and a distraction for people who enjoy armchair travel.  Each week we’ll suggest a virtual destination for you to visit.

All of these ideas are curated and brought to you by Lorraine Rubinacci!

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Travel Tuesdays, April 6, 2021 - "Frankincense and Myrrh"

This week’s topic began with the discovery of an unfamiliar and wondrous place:  the island of Socotra in the Arabian Sea.  For a plant enthusiast like me, one glimpse of a dragon’s blood tree was enough to generate excitement and wanderlust.  When can I go!

Dragon’s Blood Trees, Socotra

Andrey Kotov200514, CC BY-SA 4.0

My initial amazement only intensified as I read more about the island’s ecology.  Socotra is a hotbed of biodiversity with a very high number of endemic plants, that is, plants that grow nowhere else.  These include many odd-looking species that can conserve water amidst the island’s arid landscape, or capture it from the mists that pass over its mountainous regions.

Cucumber Tree, Socotra

Gerry & Bonni, CC BY 2.0

And there’s more:  birds, reptiles, snails, corals, crustaceans, and, according to  UNESCO, 730 species of coastal fish.  It is sometimes called “the Galápagos of the Indian Ocean.”  Socotra’s rugged interior has 5,000 foot mountains; its coasts are lined with sandy beaches.  “Where the Weird Things Are,” a 2012 article from National Geographic,  provides a fine introduction to the island -- and some spectacular photos. It also briefly describes the island’s people.  Until recently, “Socotra’s residents lived generation after generation as their ancestors had: the mountain Bedouin minding their goats, the coastal residents fishing, and everyone harvesting dates. Island history was passed down through poetry, recited in the Socotri language.” (This article requires a digital subscription to National Geographic.  Alternatively, read 2018’s “Can Socotra, Yemen’s ‘Dragon Blood Island,’ Be Saved?” which is a free sample offered to potential subscribers.)

To get a better sense of these people and their traditional lifestyle, watch “Socotra, The Island of Djinns.”  This beautifully-filmed documentary captures the daily rhythms of a small group of herders as they trek towards their seasonal mountain village.  The herders are at ease in this very rugged terrain, even as they make the strenuous climb with their camels.  Within this harsh land, they perform the familiar rituals of cooking and animal husbandry and they share stories, music, and laughter.  I do wonder whether Socotri women tell stories of shape-shifting, male djinns!  These male raconteurs seem preoccupied with dangerous females. 


This hour-long film is in the Socotri language with some subtitles.  If time is short, you can absorb the atmosphere through this short excerpt.

With spectacular natural resources and a distinctive culture, this island would seem to be the ideal destination for adventurous tourists, but, until recently, Socotra preserved its relative isolation.  Then, in 1999, the first airport was built.   In the succeeding years, efforts were made to promote ecotourism:  roads, parks, and guided tours augmented regular flights from the mainland.  Tourism grew quickly, raising concerns that this well-preserved gem might suffer the same negative impacts that have plagued other “paradise” islands.  Potential threats include road construction that can destroy or fragment habitat, port development and shipping that can damage marine life, and hotels and restaurants that consume beaches.  Outside pressures may also disrupt community life, affecting land stewardship and traditional methods of conflict resolution.  Introduced species pose yet another concern.  Feral cats harm wildlife and unrestricted grazing by goats damages vegetation.  Recently, a new troubling invader has been detected:  the red palm weevil which kills date palms, a major source of food and income on the island. 

Nevertheless, carefully-managed tourism can sustain local people and provide motivation to protect natural resources.  A new Bradt Travel Guide, Socotra, hopes to draw the attention of eco-conscious travelers in an effort to protect the island from greater threats.  This guide is available as an ebook through the Ames Free Library’s Hoopla app.


Of all the challenges this island and its people face, none is more serious than the impacts of the Yemeni civil war which began, and has continued raging, since 2015.  Socotra is part of Yemen, or what used to be the single nation of Yemen.  The conflict is complicated, with more than one Yemeni faction seeking autonomy and several neighboring nations taking sides.  To get a grasp of the complexities, read “Yemen Crisis:  Why Is There a War?” from June 2020 or “The End of Yemen” from two weeks ago.  Socotra’s location off the horn of Africa, near the Gulf of Aden, gives it strategic value to the region’s shipping lanes.  It is a very small island caught in the power plays of a volatile region.  To my best understanding, Socotra is now controlled by the Yemeni separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council.

Credit: Google Maps

My fond reverie of escaping to a fanciful island quickly hit the wall of reality.  Then again, “getting away” always takes us to someplace where other people have their own problems.   It’s good to learn more about the world as it is and to sometimes experience new places firsthand.  Let’s hope Socotra’s riches survive this upheaval for the sake of its inhabitants and for its future visitors.

Moisture, Socotra Island

Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0

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